Time to put things right, Mayor Farbridge

It was recently reported that Guelph’s CAO Anne Pappert used the word, “regressive” in describing the outcome for the city in pursuing a lower tax increase (up to 3%) — as directed by council — than the 8.5% increase staff has signalled would be necessary to maintain services at their present levels. CAO Pappert is quoted by the Guelph Mercury’s Scott Tracey as saying this direction would involve “things that I’m not finding palatable”.

I’m guessing news of our CAO’s comments raised eyebrows among her CAO cohorts from other municipalities. In Guelph, as you know, yes, the comments have generated a reaction. On balance, we really didn’t need it. The larger community needs to be working towards a consensus. It didn’t need that wedge.

CAO Pappert’s use of the word “regressive” crossed a line for me.

And if describing to Council that their direction would translate into some things the CAO found “unpalatable” could get a pass, it was still an ill-advised comment given the context surrounding Council’s recent misadventure with the Integrity Commissioner.

It’s time to put things right, Mayor Farbridge, and suggest to CAO Pappert that she apologize to Council for her comments.

A few things about this affair stink.

First, I question why CAO Pappert would ever consider it OK to make a subjective, politically loaded characterization about a budget direction in the first place. It wasn’t necessary. Period. By way of comparison, budgets are what our provincial and federal governments live or die on. Votes on budgets are a matter of confidence in the standing government. That’s the system. And taxation is no small part of those budgets.

So, clearly, if you work in government, you should know the lines in the sand. Comments by staff on budget impacts need to be objective, non-partisan. It is what council is looking for from staff. Relying on from staff, in fact.

If we have political representation, what is it if it isn’t to determine what monies are collected, how, and how much and from whom, and how those monies will be spent? Budgets are about taxes and planned expenditures, invariably with its winners and losers, and are sacrosanct to our political traditions.

So, yes, it is entirely appropriate for an elected official to comment on what is being presented to them regarding the taxes that will be levied, short of that official defaming individuals. They were elected to speak on such items for the rest of us.

Responsibility for the outcomes of budget decisions stop with them.

Similarly, it is entirely inappropriate for public servants to make politically loaded statements about the direction sought by the people that they are working for, as represented through their elected officials.

Further, among staff, there is, presumably, a higher burden of responsibility, in the present case for the City’s CAO, to exemplify the value of non-partisanship. To me, the use of words like “regressive” is inappropriate and transgresses that standard.

Something else that stinks from this is the apparent politicization of the public service under this and the previous council. Perceptions matter. Confidence and trust in staff stand to be eroded because of it and I suggest the CAO’s characterizations of council’s direction were unhelpful in this regard.

All of which is to say, Mayor Farbridge, the time is now to show leadership. I suggest you are being one-sided in your approach to issues of conduct, roles and boundaries. It seems balance is lacking in terms of the expectations of Council members when it comes to staff relations.

What stinks most in all of this, Madam Mayor, is you were elected on a ticket which included putting an end to what was described as dysfunctional politics, and yet part of that message by some involved vilifying certain political adversaries. That didn’t wash, if you’re actually about ending dysfunctional ways of doing politics in town, but it was a big part of you getting elected in 2006.

In the same vein, it seems to me that the use of the word “regressive” at the end of the day participates in that same vilification of the voices who are seeking a particular direction in this budget process.

Surely, towards removing roadblocks, wouldn’t our CAO want to offer an apology?

But as a final comment, more bizarre and revealing was the CAO’s dichotomy between what is affordable and what is sustainable. Who is this city being run for, anyways?

About Craig Chamberlain

Ward 3 Guelph resident, dad and step-dad.
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